This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
LOS ANGELES - All week, it has been like a funeral here in the city. The moon rose orange through the smoke. Although surrounded by miles of concrete, we could feel the million trees burning, taste the fear but even more the sadness in the air, as we sensed the firefighters' struggle to save homes that, one could argue, should never have been built. It was the sense that the city should not be here. We should not be here. That's what this land is telling us: You don't belong.
We think we can ignore nature, pave over the land and roll out our pre-grown lawns and pump imported water on them, and somehow we'll never have to wake up from the dream. But there is no way to ignore 15 wildfires stretching from Santa Barbara to the Mexican border.
The funeral we Angelenos feel is the periodic funeral of all our illusions about the nature of this place. The one that says this is paradise - Connecticut, but with 300 days of sunshine a year, wide sandy beaches and jutting mountains. But once again, the land stands revealed as itself.
Before the coming of the Spanish, the local tribes routinely lit fires to burn the chaparral, a practice that the Mexican colonizers tried to abolish, then adopted, realizing that one cannot fight fire here. This land was meant to burn. It is the essence of the place: the topography, the vegetation, the weather, the winds, one ecosystem in balance with itself. The only difficulty is - us. We aren't herders; we aren't hunters or gatherers. We build. We build and we build and we build. Farther and farther into the brush-covered hills, deeper and deeper into the funneled canyons. We love the shade and the trees and the space, the fresh scent of laurel sumac and pine. Who wouldn't?
But when immovable objects - our own rigid structures - meet irresistible force - a wildfire, say, or four, or 15 - something's going to give.
In May, Griffith Park, the rugged, mountainous 4,000-acre sanctuary at the heart of Los Angeles, burned. It had been such a lovely day, cool and clean and perfect. I was driving home from the market when I noticed the sweep of ugly orange cloud overhead, a stain against the bright blue, and followed it back to its origin, behind a rocky ridge, the boiling columns of black and white - the black smoke outweighing the white, so I knew that was where the firefighters were. The white is the water evaporating, the effect of human resistance to disaster. Neighbors stood watching the flames rear up from behind the hill that bears the Hollywood sign. Only May, they said. What would happen when October came?
We have had hotter Octobers, 100, 105. But California is so dry now, a wet towel hung over a shower bar will be usable within half an hour. Street trees have been looking stressed all summer. People aren't used to watering them, they haven't really considered that our domestic forest of jacarandas and sweet gums, giant birds of paradise and avocados and Canary Island pines is a creation of man's will alone.
In the mountains, trees have been turning brown for years, their drought-strained wood sending out messages to the bark beetles - bugs that would ordinarily be drowned in pine sap - to come and feast. I went to summer camp in those mountains, learned to hike on its pine-fragrant trails, that smell in the morning the very best part of my overly urban childhood. I wonder if that forest will survive for my grandchildren to enjoy. Right now, I doubt it.
We have seen fires before, big fires, the Malibu fire of 1993, the San Diego fires of 2003. The big fire of my childhood was the Brentwood fire of 1961, which finally spurred the wealthy NIMBY (not in my backyard) residents to allow a fire station to be built in their midst. But we have never seen fires like these.
President Bush addressed us Tuesday morning, reassuring us that he was sending out the heads of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. One couldn't help thinking ungenerous thoughts. Oh goody, an attempt to illustrate that Things Have Changed since Hurricane Katrina and to rebuild our confidence in the administration's commitment to emergency preparedness, illustrating a hitherto undemonstrated concern about the welfare of citizens.
But this is not New Orleans. Let's just say, quite delicately, that many of the victims of this fire situation, especially in the San Diego area, live on the correct side of the socioeconomic spectrum. They have plastic, they have cars, they have choices. Not to mention that many hold a rightward position in party orientation. Exactly the type of person who will remember what went down when fire season ends and fundraising season begins. Yet cynical or not, we will be happy to take whatever help we can get.
What is the news in this news of fire, beyond the hypnotic photography and the immediacy of it? For me, real news consists of those things that change our world forever. What makes a fire like this real news is what made Katrina news - the size of it, the impact, and the political response. What was possible, at our historic moment, to do, and what, in fact, was done.
With all the talk about emergency preparedness and homeland security, the true newsworthiness of these giant disasters lies in the way they punch holes in our false sense of security, the notion that, in case of emergency, the government will take care of us. Most of us tend to view localized events - a flood, a bridge collapse, a fire - as isolated phenomena. "Oh, those poor people! Lucky I don't live in a burn area/floodplain/decaying city!" We refuse to see them as litmus tests. We fail to read the handwriting on the wall.
The only thing that every animal fears is fire. And in Southern California, we live surrounded by kindling. The native tribes called the Los Angeles River basin the "Valley of Fire." The fire is no phenomenon. The huge population is the phenomenon, an extreme burden for firefighters to protect from this seasonal Walpurgisnacht.
When high pressure builds up over Colorado and Utah, it sends winds spiraling hot across the desert, fans them through the canyons and into the Southland at speeds up to 70 mph. Everything these Santa Anas touch withers. You can't water your plants fast enough, you feel the grit in your lungs, your teeth, you can sense the fires coming. My neighbor cut down his mature eucalyptus tree; it was just too frightening to think what these lovely trees look like on fire, exploding like giant Roman candles. I have not cut mine, but I think about it all the time, weighing the possibilities, gambling, as we all do, that it won't be this time.
A certain fatalism about fire, along with earthquakes and mudslides, is the mark of a seasoned Californian. It's what sets us apart from the new resident, who is storming around looking for someone to blame. The old hand knows it's we who are to blame. Our very presence. It would be ungentlemanly to point fingers: Why aren't "they" doing anything/enough/why didn't somebody tell me?
A Californian expects this. For dwellers in the live oak canyons and sumac hillsides of Malibu and Fallbrook and Altadena, Berkeley and Santa Barbara and Poway, it's almost a baptism. You drive to a friend's house in a brush-sloped canyon, you sit on their porch in the shade of the oaks and the sycamores. And you can't help asking, "Aren't you worried?" You will receive the same glance that you would get if you asked the parents of a newly licensed teenager out driving at night with his friends. No reply is necessary. Of course we're worried! But what are you going to do? He hasn't been hit yet, maybe he'll make it home safely, maybe he'll make it through adolescence, maybe even live to see children of his own and grow old.
People who live up in these canyons are a special sort - they are modern pioneers. They have cleared their brush, they have their water tanks, their flame-retardant roofs, they know what they will do, what they did last time, when they will evacuate or whether they will.
It's the ones with the rural idyll on their minds, without the self-reliance, who suffer most. They move to suburbs in the hills, all that reassuring concrete, up against brush-covered land they consider "the view." But it is not a spectator-object relationship. It is an ecosystem, and the human resident is part of it. As the population explodes in Southern California, and real estate ventures continue to encroach on the fire zones around every developed town, you will have human disaster. You will. Immovable object will lose in the face of irresistible force.
As global warming continues, this Santa Ana season is a harbinger. Our climate is only becoming drier. The chaparral will only become more volatile. Humans are not going to commit suicide en masse or move away. There are limited possibilities.
We could alter our preference for fire suppression and use controlled burns as the native Californians did, working with our region's natural ecology. People who have built suburbs in fire regions dislike that one intensely, because they would prefer to ignore the reality of where they live. Certainly, personal responsibility, the need to perform all the tasks necessary in fire zones - clearing brush, designing fire-safe roofs, having fire defense and evacuation plans - would be extremely useful. Government acceptance of the inevitable, purchasing greater numbers of firefighting planes and providing an assured supply of firefighting crews, is absolutely vital. The state could require people buying homes or renting in fire-prone areas to sign a waiver showing that they understand the risks and increased responsibility of occupying such properties.
But stewardship of the land needs to return, from the replacement of the little fires that burn in our cars every day, causing climate change, to controlled burns to lighten the fuel for the inevitable wildfires to come. Above all, residents must become true Californians, and accept the reality of the region they have chosen to call home.
Janet Fitch's most recent novel is "Paint It Black." Author email: email@example.com